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Afghan Refugees in Pakistan | Afghanistan |

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Afghan Refugees in Pakistan

Sanaa Alimia

/ 14 Minuten zu lesen

Pakistan hosts approximately three million Afghans. Which events triggered their migration to Pakistan? How does Pakistan deal with these migrants, and what is known about their living conditions? An overview.

Islamabad: Young Afghan men present a traditional dance at a UNHCR event marking World Refugee Day 2018. (© picture-alliance/AP)

Politics and the media speak of a refugee crisis in Europe. However, most of the world’s refugees are not living in Europe but are primarily in Asia, Africa, the Arab region, and South America where they are either internally displaced persons (IDPs) within their home states or refugees in neighbouring states. Given that most of these host states are amongst the poorer countries of the world, the presence of IDPs and refugees places a strain on their government resources and infrastructure, and may lead to social and political tensions.

Today Afghans are Interner Link: one of the largest groups seeking asylum in Europe, however, since the 1970s most have been living in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. This short paper gives an overview of the Afghan story in Pakistan. It provides some historical background to cross-border migrations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, outlines Pakistan’s laws and policies toward Interner Link: Afghan refugees, presents some key facts about the demographics of Afghans in Pakistan, and gives some insights into current living conditions for Afghans in Pakistan.

The History of Afghan Migration into Pakistan

Historically, there has always been some movement of individuals and groups across what is today known as the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This is because shared ethno-linguistic groups such as Pashtuns, Hazaras, and Gujjars are found on both sides of the border. When the Afghanistan-British India border (also known as the Durand Line) was negotiated in 1893 under British colonial rule, it was shaped by a fluid, semi-autonomous geographic ‘buffer zone’ called the Tribal Areas (located on the side of British India). In 1947, after the independence and partition of British India into two new nation-states, India and Pakistan, Pakistan inherited this fluid border and buffer zone, which was renamed as Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Until March 2018 FATA remained outside of the full grip of the Pakistani constitution (Article 247). In practice this meant that it was difficult to regulate population flows across the border. Yet between 1947 and the 1970s most population movements were limited to a few thousand nomads, traders, and families with historic connections across both sides of the border. It was only in the 1970s when political conditions in Afghanistan changed, and especially with the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, that tens of thousands and then millions of Afghans sought refuge in Pakistan.

Political Conditions in Afghanistan: Over 40 Years of Conflict

1973-1978: Daoud Khan.

In 1973, the Afghan monarch, Zahir Shah Shah (in power 1933-1973) was overthrown in a coup d’état by his cousin and military leader, Daoud Khan (in power 1973-1978). The coup was followed by aggressive socialist inspired state centralisation. In response, a few thousand Afghans migrated to Pakistan. Additionally, smaller numbers of Afghans with enough resources migrated to Western Europe and North America.

1978-1979: The Rise of the PDPA.

In the 1970s, the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) emerged as a key player in Afghanistan. In April 1978, the PDPA overthrew and killed Daoud Khan in the Saur Revolution. The PDPA engaged in an even more radical and violent programme of state centralization and land reforms. This was met with significant resistance across the country. Larger and more spontaneous movements of individuals and groups to Pakistan started, and by the end of 1979 there were over 400,000 Afghans in Pakistan.

1979-1988: The Soviet-Afghan War.

In December 1979, after the PDPA requested support from the Soviet Union to crush the resistance they faced, the Soviet Union started a war in Afghanistan by sending troops into the country. A massive humanitarian crisis followed and by the end of the war in 1988 some four to five million Afghans had sought refuge in Pakistan. In addition, some three million Afghans fled to Iran. Given that Afghanistan’s pre-war population was 13 million persons this means that more than half of the Afghan population was then living in exile.

During this period, Afghans were welcomed in Pakistan and the fluid border was celebrated, because Pakistan wanted to have political influence in Afghanistan. This interest was driven by a desire to silence the tensions between the two states that had developed since Pakistan’s birth in 1947 during which time the Afghan state consistently rejected the legitimacy of the then determined borderline (the so-called Durand Line). The Afghan state and ruling elites were dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group and Pakistan was also concerned about its own Pashtun population in the northwest of the country, some of whom had historic links to the Afghan state and were pushing their own political agenda for a separate nation-state, “Pashtunistan”. Furthermore, Pakistan was closely allied to the U.S. who prioritised defeating the Soviet Union in the context of the Cold War. Therefore, Pakistan, the U.S., and their allies sponsored the Afghan Mujahideen (“holy warriors”), Interner Link: political Islamists, who were exiled in Pakistan and fought against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan.

QuellentextSound Bite

“During the Jihad [Soviet-Afghan War] we had so much attention from the world. There was so much money in the refugee camps and so much support, from the U.S., [West] Germany, Pakistan, and the [Gulf] Arabs. But now we have been left alone and are told to go back to Afghanistan."

Author's interview with a former Mujahideen fighter living in a Peshawar refugee camp, 2014.

1989-1992: End of the Soviet-Afghan War and the Start of Civil War.

In 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan defeated. This did not, however, mean an end to conflict. As the different factions of the Mujahideen returned to Afghanistan and made competing claims to power, a bitter civil war ensued. The Mujahideen forced the PDPA out of power in 1992 and persecuted former PDPA employed civil servants. The result was new waves of migrations to Pakistan and Iran.

1992-2001: Civil War and the Rise of the Taliban.

As the civil war continued, the Taliban were able to emerge and take over parts of the country. Between 1995 and 1998 the Taliban established a firm grip on Afghanistan. The rise of the Taliban saw the brutal persecution of Hazara Afghans (an ethnic and Ismaili Shia minority), many of whom migrated to Iran and Pakistan. Severe droughts and the degeneration of infrastructure in the course of the protracted conflict further pushed people out of Afghanistan.

QuellentextSound Bite

“I saw my father being killed. They shot him in front of our house. Some men [known Taliban fighters] came to our village and went after our men. My brother was away at the time, but they killed him when he returned, too. They shot him. He was only 23 years old. My mother has never been the same since. She and I left with my sisters to Karachi shortly after, when others were leaving the village. Things are better for us here. I work as a beautician in the city. But things are also changing for the worse here too… The men are being targeted again in [sectarian] killings."
Author's interview with a 24-year-old Afghan Hazara, Karachi, 2013.

2001-Present: The ‘War on Terror’.

Since 2001 any Afghan seeking refuge in Pakistan is classified as an undocumented migrant and not a refugee. The main aim of the Pakistani state has been to encourage Afghans to leave the country. In October 2001 the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after holding the Taliban government responsible for enabling Al-Qaeda to carry out the terrorist attacks of September 11. Pakistan, under President Pervez Musharraf, allied itself to the U.S. and tried to distance itself from the Taliban, despite clear links between the Pakistani state and the Afghan Taliban, many of whom were based in Pakistan. Within a few years, the war in Afghanistan also spilled over into Pakistan, in particular to its northwestern areas, including the FATA region. Due to the war in Afghanistan and the (ongoing) armed conflict in Pakistan between the military and the Taliban, Pakistan has faced internal and external pressure to better secure the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This means improving its border management techniques, i.e. to better control cross-border population flows. The fluid border is no longer considered an asset.

Quick Facts

  • Since 2001, the war in Afghanistan has killed some 120,000 Afghans.*

  • The Taliban are still a strong presence in the country and the Islamic State (IS) is also active in the country.

  • Bombings are routine and massive with a huge psychological impact on the population.

  • Charges of government corruption are commonplace.

  • Patriarchal violence continues.

  • New waves of Afghan migration toward Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Europe, Australia, and North America are taking place, and include Afghan men, women, unaccompanied minors (usually boys), and families.**

* 111,442 people were killed in Afghanistan between 2001-2016. Since then at least 5,000 Afghans have been killed. See: N. C. Crawford. 2016. ‘War-related Death, Injury, and Displacement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001 to mid-2016’. In Costs of War Project. Brown University. Available at: Externer Link: (accessed: 21-8-2018); United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. 2017. ‘Afghanistan: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, Annual Report 2017’. Available at: Externer Link: (accessed: 21-8-2018). ** S. Alimia. 2015. ‘Afghan (Re)Migration from Pakistan to Turkey: Transnational Norms and the ‘Pull’ of Pax-Ottomanica’. Insight Turkey. 16: 4, pp. 159-186.

Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations

Historically, the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship has been marked by antagonism over the border, which the Afghan state has repeatedly rejected. Another source of conflict has been the support of the Afghan state for Pakistani Pashtun dissidents and its close relations with Pakistan’s existential rival, India. In the 1970s and 1980s, in the context of the Cold War, Pakistan welcomed Afghan refugees and particularly transnational Islamists as a way of gaining potential political influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan's support for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the 1990s followed the same logic. With the start of the Global War on Terror against the Taliban and the reconstruction of the Afghan state in the 2000s, the relationship between the two neighbours has reverted to older patterns. Successive Afghan governments have once again questioned the legitimacy of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and sought close links to India. Thus, regional geopolitics is key to understanding the position of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Laws and Policies Toward Afghans in Pakistan

Pakistan is not a signatory to the United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. Pakistan also has no official Refugee Law. Section 4 of Pakistan’s 1951 Citizenship Act outlines that anyone born in Pakistan after 1951 is eligible for Pakistani citizenship, unless their parents come from an enemy state (a status reserved only for India and Israel). However, this stipulation has rarely been implemented and never for Afghans. In 2018, the newly elected Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, of the Pakistan-Tehreek-e-Insaaf Party, promised all Afghans born in Pakistan would be give citizenship. However, the backlash against this move was so huge he had to backtrack on this offer.The only route to citizenship for Afghans is through marriage with a male Pakistani citizen; in practice, only Afghan women can acquire Pakistani citizenship through marriage (Section 10, 1951 Citizenship Act).

Quick facts

  • Afghan refugees in Pakistan have never been restricted to living in refugee camps. They are free to settle in different parts of the country, and they are free to seek employment.

  • A small number of Afghans have become Pakistani citizens through forgery of documents, bribery, and corruption.

  • Most Afghans in Pakistan are non-citizens and do not have the chance to be naturalized.

Afghans have been given institutional support in Pakistan, much of which began during the Soviet-Afghan War. In 1979, the government of Pakistan established a government department, the Chief Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees (CCAR), which is subject to the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) and is charged with the management of all Afghan refugees in Pakistan. This includes refugees living in and outside of refugee camps. Key activities include providing land for refugee camps, coordinating relief activities with international organisations, education, and healthcare in refugee camps, and providing advice to Afghans living outside of refugee camps on a number of issues, including access to education and employment.

In addition, since 1979/80 the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has been active in Pakistan. Its main role has been to financially and institutionally support relief activities and provide protection to refugees. It has funded many of CCAR’s activities and has coordinated efforts of international aid agencies. When the Soviet-Afghan War ended, international aid for Afghans in Pakistan was dramatically reduced and continued to dwindle in the 1990s, leaving much of the financial burden of refugee management on the government of Pakistan or refugee communities themselves. Since 1994/95, for example, no food rations have been allocated to Afghans. In the 2000s and 2010s, UNHCR's main activities included supporting repatriation efforts, providing legal assistance, issuing birth certificates, and partially funding primary school education of Afghan children.

Since the 2000s Pakistan’s main policy toward Afghans in Pakistan has been to encourage them to participate in assisted voluntary repatriation (AVR) schemes. This is supported by UNHCR, the U.S. and other NATO member states that consider Afghanistan (or at least parts of the country) to be "safe" enough for return. A major component of the repatriation scheme has been to give Afghans ID cards in order to monitor how many individuals and families are returning.

In 2003, Pakistan signed the first of a series of Tripartite Agreements with the government of Afghanistan and UNHCR to manage Afghans in Pakistan and cross-border repatriation. CCAR and SAFRON have also produced two major policy programmes to manage the Afghan population in Pakistan and return to Afghanistan. Despite the therewith established codes of conduct, different institutions and actors within the Pakistani government have carried out routine harassment and human rights abuses of Afghans. Human rights organizations suspect this to be a tactic to coerce Afghans into leaving the country.

Pressure on Afghans is also fuelled by mainstream political parties and the media who regularly blame Afghans for terrorist attacks in the country. In the context of tensions between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan Afghans living in Pakistan are often depicted as a suspicious “fifth-column” who must be monitored and/or forced to leave the country.

Yet, there have been voices in the government who recognize that Pakistan does not have the institutional capacity to return all Afghans to Afghanistan. They are supported by UNHCR in their attempt to push for means to regularize the status of Afghans living in Pakistan (e.g. visa and schemes for legal residency).

Quick Facts

  • In 2006 and 2007, CCAR/SAFRON and UNCHR rolled out a computerised biometric identity (ID) card scheme for Afghan refugees (the Afghan Citizen Proof of Registration Card), which has been used to facilitate Assistant Voluntary Return.*

  • In 2017, the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) started a registration and identity card scheme for undocumented Afghans, which is also geared toward supporting repatriation programmes.**

  • Afghans who return to Afghanistan are de-registered from Pakistan via their ID cards at encashment centres in Afghanistan where they are given some monetary compensation.

  • Since the mid-2000s, human rights groups have repeatedly condemned Pakistan’s routine harassment of Afghans.

  • Visa and residency schemes for Afghans have started to be rolled out in 2017-2018.

* S. Alimia. 2018. ‘Performing the Afghanistan-Pakistan Border through Refugee ID Cards’. Geopolitics.
** S. Khan. 2017. ‘Afghans Dream of Stepping out of the Shadows with Pakistan ID Scheme’. UNHCR. 21 July. Available at: Externer Link: (accessed: 21-8-2018).

The Afghan Population in Pakistan

Since the 1970s, Pakistan has hosted over eight million Afghans. Many of them have returned to Afghanistan or migrated on to other countries. From 2002 to 2018 4.3 million registered refugees have repatriated to Afghanistan. The Afghan population in Pakistan has fluctuated because of different migration waves and natural population growth rates. Today, there are three million Afghans in Pakistan: 1.4 million are refugees registered with the government of Pakistan and UNHCR (“Afghan refugees”); 1,0-1.5 million are undocumented Afghans.

A 2011 survey of refugees and undocumented Afghans highlights that 74 percent of all Afghans living in Pakistan were born in the country and are, sociologically speaking, Pakistani.

Of the 1.4 million Afghan refugees currently living in Pakistan 56 percent are male, 44 are female. Children make up 50 percent of the Pakistan-based Afghan population. Overall, 72 percent of Afghans residing in Pakistan are women and children.

85 percent of the 1.4 million registered Afghans in Pakistan are of Pashtun origin, an ethno-linguistic group that is also found in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, (former) FATA region, and the province of Balochistan. Other major Afghan ethnic groups in Pakistan include Tajiks (six percent), Uzbeks (three percent), Turkmens (one percent), and Hazaras (two percent).

32 percent of registered Afghans in Pakistan live in refugee camps; 68 percent reside outside these camps, most of them in urban areas. In the cities, they often live in informal settlements and are confronted with limited access to basic goods and security. Yet, Afghans living in refugee camps are not necessarily better off. Many have suffered from reduced international funding and the closure of camps.

The Afghan population is not spread evenly across Pakistan, but concentrated in certain areas or provinces. Large shares of registered Afghan refugees can be found in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (58 percent), Balochistan (23 percent), and Punjab (12 percent); smaller shares in Sindh (five percent), Islamabad and the Capital Territories (two percent), FATA (one percent) as well as Pakistan Administered Kashmir (0.3 percent). An educated guess would place similar ratios of undocumented Afghans across Pakistan’s provinces.

Most registered and undocumented Afghans fall into the low-income section of the labour market and are employed in daily wage labour, as rag pickers, or handicraft production. Disproportionate numbers of Afghans particularly of those who are undocumented, find themselves in bonded labour in Pakistan’s clay brick production. Smaller numbers of Afghans are employed as teachers, operate small businesses, and/or engage in transregional trade.

A majority of Afghans in Pakistan are from low-income households, a status that is largely inherited from the time of their movement into Pakistan. Therefore, large numbers of Afghans have poor access to employment and basic rights such as access to safe drinking water, healthcare, education, and basic utilities.

Registered Afghan refugees are allowed to attend public and private Pakistani schools, colleges, and universities. There are also Afghan primary and high schools overseen by the Afghan consulate in Pakistan that teach a syllabus compatible with the education system in Afghanistan.

Since undocumented Afghans have a precarious legal status, many of them end up reliant on the informal economy for access to work, healthcare, education, housing, and utilities.

Current Living Conditions in Pakistan

Pakistan’s performance on various global indices – be it with regard to its economic power, political stability, gender equality, or human development – is weak. Some 45.6 percent of the population are in multidimensional poverty whilst 26.5 percent are in severe multidimensional poverty. The country is also marked by structural inequalities and discriminations that impact different geographic regions, ethnicities, religious minorities, women, and transgender persons. Pakistan’s overall position is shaped by a number of long-, medium-, and short-term factors which include the domination of the military in governance, which sucks up most of the country’s resources, and a concentration of political power in urban Punjab.

Patriarchy is an ongoing problem in the country. In 2018 Pakistan's female literacy rate stood at 45 percent, whereas the male literacy rate was 69 percent. Violence against women, through so-called honour killings, acid attacks, domestic violence, and forced marriages is not uncommon. These are issues that also impact Afghan women in Pakistan, but fail to get noticed as the state and/or international organizations focus their concerns on refugee repatriation. In addition, Pakistani political and community organisations for women often have less access to migrant women and/or do not focus on these groups as they are not potential vote banks.

Violence against ethnic groups is another problem. Shia Muslims are particularly vulnerable to sectarian violence from Sunni militant groups, which also target Sufi shrines, Christians, and other minorities, through bombings and target killings. Afghan Hazaras are particularly vulnerable as they appear as a physically distinct ethnic group and are thereby easy to identify. From 2014 to 2018 it is estimated that in Quetta alone 509 Hazaras were killed and 627 injured in various targeted killings.

Instability and inequalities in Pakistan produce high numbers of Pakistani asylum seekers, undocumented migrants, and internally displaced persons. This, in turn, has a significant impact on Afghans living in Pakistan. As non-citizens they are considered a lower priority than Pakistanis moving inside the country or leaving it, and are in fact often overlooked and/or seen as a burden on an already overstretched state.

Quick Facts

  • Pakistan has large numbers of IDPs because of poorly managed ecological disasters, such as the 2010 nationwide floods that displaced over 19 million persons, and the impact of the War on Terror, which displaced over five million persons.

  • It is estimated that some 67,000 Pakistanis (mainly Pashtuns) have been killed in the War on Terror by military and militant violence and U.S.-based drone strikes.*

  • Terrorist bombings are commonplace.

  • Sectarian violence and the targeted killings and persecution of minorities, including Christians, Ahmadiyya Muslims, and Shias, are the order of the day.

* N. C. Crawford. 2016. ‘War-related Death, Injury, and Displacement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001 to mid-2016’. In Costs of War Project. Brown University. Available at: Externer Link: (accessed: 21-8-2018).

An overarching theme of the Afghan experience in Pakistan since the 2000s has been one of being made scapegoats for terrorist violence, criminality, and being a strain on government resources, which is intersected with class-based discriminations against the poor in general. Additionally, since the early 2000s, Afghans face consistent police harassment, mass and individual arrests, and deportations.

QuellentextSound Bite

“I have been hit and beaten by the police who have told me I should return to Afghanistan. I have been arrested without charge. My family worries for me every day. But Pakistan is my home. I was born here. I have lived here all my life. How can I go to Afghanistan? We have never lived there."
Author's interview with an Afghan resident of Karachi, 2016.

In general, social relations between Afghans and Pakistanis have, however, not been antagonistic. Many Afghans find themselves living in conditions similar to those of Pakistani citizens; often, Afghans live next door to Pakistanis. Given that most Afghans have been living in Pakistan since the 1970s, many have intermarried with Pakistanis, which is especially notable for Pashtuns and Hazaras. As numerous Pakistani citizens have become displaced persons within Pakistan, many Afghans generously opened up their own homes to support them; for example, in the context of the 2010 national floods and in the cases of displacements of residents of FATA in the War on Terror.

An Uncertain Outlook

Geopolitical pressures to manage the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and a deterioration of the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship in the Global War on Terror have mounted pressure on Afghans to leave Pakistan. Many Afghans have returned to Afghanistan or are living transnationally, with families being divided and distributed across countries. Some have moved on to other countries. Yet, sizeable numbers of Afghans remain in Pakistan, a country that has been home for over 40 years and/or their place of birth. Many Afghans are an active part of the social and economic life in Pakistan. Given ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, transnational mobility and migration out of Afghanistan continues to serve as a means of survival and to improve people's lives. All of these factors make it seem unlikely that Pakistan will ever be able to remove all registered and undocumented Afghans from Pakistan (forcibly or voluntarily). Therefore, hopes are that Pakistan will allow for the regularization of Afghans in the country to end the precarious state of uncertainty many of them are living in.



  1. S. Alimia (forthcoming). Afghan Refugees in Pakistan. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

  2. Afghanistan was never formally colonised by the British Empire, but held the status of a British protectorate until 1923.

  3. Alimia. Afghan Refugees in Pakistan.

  4. Government of Afghanistan. 1979. Census of Afghanistan. Kabul. LSE Archive.

  5. Government of Pakistan. 1951. Citizenship Act of Pakistan, 1951. Available at: Externer Link: (accessed: 21-8-2018).

  6. CCAR and SAFRON. 2010.‘Afghan Management and Repatriation Strategy’. Islamabad; CCAR and SAFRON. 2015. ‘Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees (SSAR, phase II 2015-2017)’. Islamabad (in conjunction with the government of Afghanistan and UNHCR).

  7. Human Rights Watch. 2017. ‘Pakistan Coercion, UN Complicity: The Mass Forced Return of Afghan Refugees’. Islamabad.

  8. SAFRON, CCAR, and UNHCR. 2012. ‘Population Profiling, Verification and Response Survey of Afghans in Pakistan.’ Islamabad, p. 12.

  9. SAFRON, CCAR, and UNHCR. 2012. ‘Population Profiling, Verification and Response Survey of Afghans in Pakistan.’ Islamabad, p. 12.

  10. UNHCR. 2017. ‘Pakistan: Refugee Update. As of 31st December 2017’.

  11. Ibid.

  12. UNDP. 2017. ‘National Human Development, Report 2017: Unleashing the Potential of a Young Pakistan’. Islamabad. Available at: Externer Link: (accessed: 21-8-2018).

  13. Human Rights Watch. 2018. ‘Pakistan’s Hazara Community Under Attack. Militant Killings of Besieged Shia Muslims Escalate’. 20 April. Available at: Externer Link: (accessed: 21-8-2018).

  14. UNHCR. ‘Pakistan: Refugee Update. As of 31st December 2017’.


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Dr. Sanaa Alimia is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin. Her research focuses on Afghan refugees and urban poor residents in Pakistan.